Recap of Keystone’s 2022 Success Stories
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We are proud to share some of our successful cases from 2022, in hopes of inspiring anyone who may be in a similar situation and showcasing the importance of seeking help from an experienced probate attorney to help find a resolution. And of course, these successes do not constitute a guarantee, warranty or prediction regarding the outcome of your legal matter.
Table of Contents
Deceased Husband Misappropriated Property Worth Millions From Client; Keystone Got It Back and More
In multiple litigated actions in the San Diego Superior Court, Keystone represented the surviving spouse and stepson of the decedent in an aggressively litigated trust and estate dispute following the decedent’s death.
After a 46-year marriage to the decedent, Keystone’s client learned that her husband had taken advantage of her trust and fidelity during their marriage by utilizing highly complex estate planning documents, “agreements” and other machinations fashioned by his own legal counsel in an attempt to carve out a disproportionate share of their marital estate to leave his own daughters, to the detriment of Keystone’s client.. The crushing revelation, along with faulty legal advice, ultimately led Keystone’s client to file for divorce from her husband, who, shortly thereafter, was placed under a conservatorship by his daughters. He passed away before the dispute with Keystone’s client could be resolved.
Following his death, at least seven petitions and cross-petitions were initiated in three separate probate proceedings to adjudicate disputes between Keystone’s clients and the decedent’s daughters, who were his personal representatives and trustees. At the heart of this dispute were the dueling contentions of the parties concerning the character of assets (i.e., whether they were separate or community property assets). The assets were valued between $12-15 million, acquired during the marriage, and held directly or indirectly by the decedent and/or Keystone’s client.
After extensive litigation, Keystone was able to help its client negotiate a favorable settlement that resulted in her keeping millions of dollars’ worth of property in her possession, a life estate in the decedent’s share of their jointly owned condominium and a substantial settlement payment.
As an added bonus, Keystone also represented its client in a legal malpractice action against her former counsel, whose negligence adversely impacted our client’s interests in the trust and estate disputes. We obtained a substantial six-figure additional settlement payment for our client in that action.
Keystone Helps Trust Beneficiary Enforce His Rights Against Do-Nothing Trustees
Keystone’s client and his two sisters had been named equal beneficiaries to their parents’ trust, with the sisters having been named as successor co-trustees as well. In 2013, the siblings’ mother died, and not long after, in 2020, their father (the “decedent”) followed suit.
The client’s sisters did nothing to administer the trust or distribute our client’s share of the trust to him; nevertheless, they continued to make use of the trust and its resources. As an example, one sister lived rent-free in a trust property, while the other sister claimed that she owned a different property outright that formerly belonged to the trust and that she had obtained from the decedent under highly suspicious circumstances.
Keystone first tried to encourage timely trust administration without resorting to litigation by communicating directly with the client’s sisters, but the sisters continued to sit on their hands. Keystone then asserted its client’s rights by filing with the probate court a petition to compel distribution of trust assets, an accounting of the trust and reimbursement for lost rent due to the trustee’s occupancy of the trust property—which likely could be regarded as fiduciary misconduct. Keystone also sought for ownership of the sister’s property to be returned to the trust because of the suspicious circumstances underlying its transfer.
During litigation, Keystone subpoenaed documents from the estate planning attorney who drafted the suspicious property transfer deed and multiple medical providers. The documents demonstrated that the client’s sister had a direct hand in procuring the suspicious deed while her father was debilitated and grieving the death of his wife (in other words, she potentially had perpetrated elder financial abuse to get her father to bend to her will).
At this point, Keystone took the sister’s deposition, where she demonstrated that she had lied in the discovery process and was biased against our client, despite her fiduciary duties to him. Based upon these facts, Keystone had significant leverage at a subsequent mediation and was able to secure a favorable settlement for its client, which included: full payment for the client’s interest in the wrongfully taken property, back rent from the sister who had been residing rent-free in a trust property, and a portion of the client’s attorney’s fees (which were to be paid by the trust). Additionally, the settlement required the trustees to waive their own fees and required their compliance in a contractually binding process for the timely and orderly administration of the trust.
Keystone Helps Clients Uphold Deceased Mother’s Wish to Keep Trust Property Out of Spendthrift Father’s Hands
Keystone represented two siblings, one the trustee of their mother’s trust, and the other its beneficiary. During their parents’ marriage, the clients’ father had engaged in extreme financial waste—the consequences of which the parents intended to protect their children from. To do this, the parents agreed that the mother would create a trust to which certain real property would belong, and that would pass to the children upon the mother’s death. The father signed deeds to transfer the property to the trust, which effectively disinherited him.
After the clients’ mother passed away, their then-estranged father contested the validity of the transfers, claiming that he believed he would pass away before his wife and did not intend to divest himself of his property interests. He refused to vacate the trust property, forcing our clients to initiate unlawful detainer proceedings against him. At this point, he sued his children in civil court, seeking to declare himself the owner of the property.
Early in the proceedings, the father filed an emergency application to stay the unlawful detainer proceeding. Keystone took this opportunity to inform the court of the weakness of the father’s legal position, including the absence of any legal basis for him to own or reside in the property. This involved an analysis of property characterization, legal title and joint tenancy rights. After considering the pleadings and oral arguments, the court agreed with Keystone and denied the father’s application.
With the court’s early assessment of the litigation, the strength of our clients’ case was confirmed. Keystone used that momentum to successfully negotiate a resolution in our clients’ favor, without the need for trial. Now, with their estranged father having vacated the property, dismissed his lawsuit and waived any interest in the trust, the siblings can administer the trust according to their mother’s intent.
Client Feels Validated After Keystone Secures Her a 50% Interest in Deceased Stepfather’s Estate Under Equitable Adoption Doctrine
Keystone represented the loving stepdaughter of a decedent in pursuit of her right to inherit from his estate. The decedent raised the client from the tender age of 5 and developed an extremely close bond with her commensurate with that of a father and his biological daughter. Despite the close and loving relationship between the decedent and his stepdaughter, he failed to take steps to formally adopt her or formalize his wishes in an estate plan for her benefit. This meant that under California law, Keystone’s client was not considered to be the decedent’s daughter for purposes of inheriting from his estate.
To protect the client’s rights, Keystone filed a petition for an order determining heirship and entitlement to the decedent’s estate based on equitable adoption, a theory that a person who is held out as a child by a decedent should be able to share in that decedent’s estate in the same proportion as a biological child would. However, equitable adoption is often difficult to prove, as the child is required to demonstrate the parent’s intent to adopt with “clear and convincing” evidence, the highest possible standard in civil law. The decedent’s sister, who stood to inherit instead of the client, vigorously opposed this petition.
As a result, Keystone was tasked with the tall order of establishing: 1) the decedent’s intent to adopt; and 2) proof that the decedent acted consistently with that intent by forming a close and enduring familial relationship with his stepdaughter.
Keystone worked tirelessly to secure declarations from the friends, family and co-workers of the decedent. Their testimony overwhelmingly demonstrated that the decedent acted in a manner consistent with an intent to adopt the client and that he had formed a close and enduring relationship with her that the opposing party simply could not dispute.
In an emotional mediation, the decedent’s sister argued that the decedent’s failure to formally articulate an intent to adopt the client defeated the equitable adoption theory and downplayed the significance of evidence showing that the decedent had held the stepdaughter out to the community at large as his child. Keystone argued that the decedent’s tax returns and insurance coverage, where he named the client as a dependent, demonstrated an alternate means of proving an intent to adopt.
Fortunately, Keystone was able to convince both the mediator and the decedent’s sister of the strength of the client’s evidence, resulting in a favorable settlement for the client that gave her a one-half interest in the decedent’s estate and acknowledged her importance in the decedent’s life. More important to her than securing a share of her stepfather’s estate, however, was that she felt validated in her status as the decedent’s child.
Keystone Exploits Opponents’ Achilles Heel to Secure Client His Full Rightful Inheritance Early in Litigation
Keystone represented a client who was concerned that his 97-year-old grandfather was being manipulated and taken advantage of by the grandfather’s son (the client’s uncle). The son’s actions included using the grandfather’s money for living expenses and lavish vacations, and coordinating changes to the grandfather’s trust that were inconsistent with the grandfather’s intent.
In the grandfather’s original trust, the client stood to inherit a set amount, while the amended trust completely disinherited him. The son claimed he was serving as the grandfather’s and acting in his best interests, yet he refused to provide the client with a copy of the amended trust or an accounting for his time as attorney-in-fact.
After informal attempts to resolve the matter were unsuccessful, Keystone filed for a conservatorship of the grandfather. The grandfather then purportedly hired an attorney, and his attorney insisted that he did not represent the son and could not force the son to provide information, prepare an accounting or take any other action.
In response, with a strong suspicion that the son actually was responsible for instructing the grandfather’s attorney, Keystone served discovery requests that called for the production of all information and documents related to the communications between the grandfather’s attorney and the son, which would not be protected by attorney-client privilege since the son and attorney both claimed they did not have an attorney-client relationship.
After receiving the discovery requests, the grandfather’s attorney, for the first time, indicated that he was open to settlement discussions. It became clear that the requested communications would be damning for the son. Shortly thereafter, Keystone settled the matter for the full amount its client was to receive under the original trust.
Ordinarily, obtaining this result would require costly litigation or a successful result after trial. However, by acting strategically and honing in on the opposing party’s weaknesses and vulnerabilities, Keystone’s probate attorneys were able to achieve their client’s goal early in the litigation process and at a minimal expense.
Keystone Files Marvin Claim to Help Unmarried Partner of Decedent Secure Majority of His Assets Against All Odds
Keystone’s client suffered the loss of her long-term romantic partner (the “decedent”) after a 15-year relationship. Although the client and the decedent were never married, she served as his devoted partner. At the decedent’s request, the client agreed to dedicate her life to the decedent, including providing homemaking services, ceasing her own gainful employment, serving has his dutiful partner, and caring for him in every possible way. In exchange, the decedent promised that upon his passing, she would inherit all of his assets, including a condominium and his business.
When this client first contacted our office, she indicated that several other attorneys had declined to take her case, insisting that proving the decedent’s oral agreement would be too difficult. However, Keystone believed in its client’s case and filed a creditor’s claim, and a civil complaint for a breach of oral contract and breach of agreement to make a will.
Although these claims, which are referred to as Marvin claims, historically have been difficult to prove, we reached out to numerous witnesses who had both personal and professional relationships with the decedent in an attempt to find evidence from disinterested third parties, of the decedent’s promises to the client. After conducting detailed interviews of several individuals, five separate witnesses each signed declarations confirming that the decedent specifically told them that the client would inherit all of his assets.
After minimal informal discovery, a mediation was scheduled. At mediation, using the witness declarations to bolster its position, Keystone was able to secure the decedent’s entire business and a substantial six-figure settlement payment for its client. This result provided her with the vast majority of the assets in the decedent’s estate, including a profitable business that will provide her with financial security for the rest of her life.
Keystone Secures Favorable Settlement for Client Despite Deceitful Brother’s Attempt to Keep Majority of Mother’s Assets for Himself
In this action, Keystone represented the daughter of a decedent in a trust and estate dispute against her brother, who was named as executor and trustee under the decedent’s estate planning documents. Keystone’s client, who was extremely close with her mother, always knew that her mother’s true intent was to ensure that her estate was divided equally between her two children—Keystone’s client and her brother—upon her passing. However, Keystone’s client also knew that her brother was a greedy opportunist, who would take any steps necessary to ensure that he received the entirety of his mother’s estate. In fact, prior to the mother’s passing, the brother had seemingly engaged in a progressive campaign to isolate his mother from Keystone’s client, slowly taking control of her finances, and ultimately her medical care, as her mental and physical condition declined.
Unfortunately, after her mother died, Keystone’s client learned that her suspicions were correct. In the years prior to her passing, her brother had apparently taken their mother to the bank and gotten her to name him as the pay-on-death beneficiary to virtually all of her bank accounts while his mother was blind and cognitively impaired. The brother also had taken their mother to an estate planning attorney to have her execute a revised trust mere days before her passing that named him as the beneficiary to the majority of her assets, contrary to her prior estate plan calling for an equal split of her property.
After aggressively litigating the dispute, Keystone was able to achieve a favorable settlement for its client that saw her and her children receiving a substantial settlement payment, and items of her mother’s personal property, including valuable jewelry, which were important to the client.
Keystone Secures Omitted Spouse Substantial Settlement Despite Opposing Side’s Devious Tactics
After her husband’s death, Keystone’s client faced imminent eviction from her home by her husband’s children from another marriage. The client had been married to her husband for a decade before they divorced. They later reconciled and remained married until the husband’s passing. In the period between their two marriages, the husband created his trust, which he never amended, and which named his children (but not Keystone’s client) as trust beneficiaries. The home the client had shared with her husband during his life was an asset of this trust.
After the husband died, his children assumed the client was not entitled to any of the trust estate. However, Keystone understood that the trust was governed by the “omitted spouse” provisions of the Probate Code, which invoke a presumption that the surviving spouse’s omission from a decedent’s estate plan was unintentional, and (under most circumstances) allow for the surviving spouse to share in the deceased spouse’s estate and trust assets as a matter of law.
The client’s recovery of her rightful property interests was initially hindered by her husband’s children’s withholding of information regarding the trust’s assets and liabilities. They also sought to frustrate the client’s rights by arguing that the dissolution of the first marriage impacted her entitlement to an inheritance, claiming reimbursement for myriad trust-related expenditures without documentation of the same, attempting to impute her with liability for nonpayment of rent that had never been demanded, and seeking to offset other inheritance by various unsupported theories. But Keystone recognized the baselessness of these legal positions and ensured they had no impact on its client’s ultimate recovery.
When the client’s home was eventually sold on an expedited basis, Keystone ensured all sales proceeds remained protected in a blocked account until these issues were resolved. Finally, after demanding relevant information regarding the decedent’s trust and estate and ensuring that its client’s omitted spouse’s share was not offset by unsubstantiated or inappropriate liabilities, Keystone obtained a favorable six-figure settlement for the client without having to engage in any formal litigation, thereby allowing her to reclaim her financial independence.
Keystone Prevents Client From Becoming Homeless After Decedent Conveyed Partial Ownership of Home to Untrustworthy Friend Before Death
Keystone’s client was the only child of his mother and the sole successor beneficiary of her trust. The trust’s sole asset was their modest family home, where the client, along with his wife and their child, resided with his mother until her passing. Unbeknownst to the client, his mother’s “friend” had convinced his mother to execute a grant deed conveying a 50% interest in the home to her, allegedly as “security” for a small loan to pay outstanding property taxes on the family home.
Just a few years later, this so-called friend demanded immediate payment for half of the fair market value of the home, over 10 times the value of the purported loan, and threatened to seek a court order to sell the property if her demands were not met. Her threats caused the client’s mother severe emotional harm at the thought of becoming homeless, and she passed away shortly thereafter.
Although the client had several legitimate causes of action to challenge the deed’s legitimacy in court, going to trial to challenge the validity of the deed would have been extremely costly to the client and could have potentially depleted his modest resources.
After a few months of discovery and informal settlement negotiations, the parties engaged in an intense mediation with a retired probate judge. Ultimately, Keystone was able to resolve the case in just one mediation session, with a modest settlement sum paid to the friend in exchange for a release of her interest in the client’s family home. More important than going to trial, Keystone was able to help its client and his family stay in their family home, per his mother’s express desires.
Keystone Foils Deceased Husband’s Plan to Cheat Client Out of Community Property, Instead Securing Her a Substantial Settlement
Keystone’s client was a devoted wife to her husband (the “decedent”) for over 30 years until his death in 2020. During their marriage, the decedent was able to dedicate himself to his career and accumulate millions of dollars’ worth of wealth because the client served as the full-time homemaker, while also raising his two children from a prior marriage and a third child from their own marriage.
Despite the client’s sacrifices and the fact that all of decedent’s earnings during marriage were community property (50% of which belonged to the client), he kept his finances separate from the client and was careful to title all of his assets in his individual name alone. Further, the decedent executed a trust that expressly omitted the client as a beneficiary upon his passing. Following the death of the decedent, the husband’s children from his prior marriage argued that Keystone’s client was not entitled to anything.
After conducting extensive discovery, which included a review of thousands of pages of financial records, Keystone was able to create a tracing analysis that confirmed the decedent had commingled community property earnings during his marriage with several large accounts titled in his name alone. Using this analysis, Keystone was able to secure a pretrial settlement payment to its client in the high six figures—a huge victory for the client—while saving her the time, expense and risk of trying a difficult case.
Keystone Quickly Quashes Groundless Will Contest Brought by Disinherited Son to Void Mother’s Will
Keystone represented the executor and the beneficiaries of an estate. The executor initially was representing herself when she was first appointed to her role and when the decedent’s will was admitted to probate. Because she was unaware of the required statutory notices, her estranged brother, who was specifically disinherited from the will, filed an action to revoke the admission of the will, and then subsequently filed a competing petition for his own appointment as the estate’s personal representative, along with a will contest.
Keystone was hired after litigation began to ensure that the wishes of the clients’ mother were carried out. Through discovery, it was uncovered that the estranged son was, in fact, the only person who ever had been abusive toward their mother, taking assets from her after her husband (their father) died. Keystone also learned that he had been estranged from the family for decades.
With no actual basis or facts to support his will contest, Keystone successfully settled the matter, substantially in favor of its clients’ interests, by demonstrating during mediation that the decedent had the requisite mental capacity to execute the will, and showing the disinherited son’s bad acts toward their mother were sufficient justification for him to have been disinherited in the first place.
Keystone Successfully Settles Two Complex Multi-Million Dollar Estates Involving International Beneficiaries
Keystone came into this representation after the initial handling attorney fell ill, and the administrator sought the expertise of this firm’s estate administration department to help bring two separate estates to close.
The first estate had just completed an intense litigation that was resolved in the estate’s favor, but still had outstanding estate tax issues. Upon being hired, Keystone assisted the administrator in resolving the final estate tax issues with the CPA and was able to close the estate just nine months later at the first hearing on the estate’s Petition for Final Distribution. The assets from the first estate then flowed into the estate of the decedent’s mother, who would post deceased him.
Although the decedent’s mother lived in Thailand and had never been a resident of California, Keystone was able to successfully argue that because she post deceased her son, she died with an interest in domestic real property (i.e., the assets in her predeceased son’s estate), allowing an estate proceeding for the mother to be opened and administered in the Superior Court of California, County of Los Angeles.
Similar to her son’s estate, this second estate proceeding also had complex estate tax issues. Keystone helped the administrator and CPA bring these estate tax issues to a close. Because all the heirs of this second estate resided in Thailand, Keystone worked carefully with the administrator, in lockstep, to ensure all the required formalities were met with respect to distributions to foreign heirs. Keystone closed this second estate, without any issues, and the heirs successfully received their shares.
Surviving Spouse Tries to Take Entire Property From Decedent’s Father Despite Its Separate Property Character
Keystone represented the administrator of her father’s estate, who was the intestate heir to his late son’s (and her brother’s) estate. The son had died with a surviving spouse but without children, entitling the father’s estate to a portion of the son’s separate property assets under California’s laws of intestate succession. But the surviving spouse attempted to close the son’s estate, claiming the entire estate was distributable to her as community property, notwithstanding that title to a piece of real property was in the decedent’s name alone, as his sole and separate property, and was acquired prior to their marriage.
Keystone was retained and timely filed objections to the First and Final Petition for Distribution before it could be granted. Thereafter, Keystone reviewed the necessary documents and accurately applied a concept called the Moore-Marsden formula to determine what the father’s estate’s interest was in his son’s separate property assets.
Through Keystone’s expertise, the mistakes in the opposing party’s calculations were successfully identified, leading to a favorable settlement for the client after the surviving spouse conceded on numerous points.
You Get What You Pay For – Keystone Helps Client Fix Substandard Estate Planning
Keystone represented the settlor of a trust who used a non-attorney legal service to help her with her estate planning. The client is a native of the Philippines and understands only basic English. Unfortunately, this service improperly advised her to transfer her primary residence into an irrevocable Qualified Personal Residence Trust (or “QPRT” trust). Due to her limited English skills and lack of competent professional advice, the client did not understand that she would no longer own her home by executing a deed that conveyed it to the QPRT. As a result, she was unable to utilize her home for her benefit during her senior years.
The client contacted Keystone to help her undo this ill-advised transfer. The firm petitioned the probate court and succeeded in obtaining a court order that rescinded the QPRT entirely, enabling the residence to be returned to the client. This allowed her to take advantage of the home’s equity to ensure that she would be financially secure for the rest of her life.
Trustee Caves After Receiving Letter From Keystone, Providing 4 Years of Overdue Accountings and Distributions to Beneficiary
Keystone’s client was a beneficiary of a number of family trusts and sub-trusts set up by her grandparents for the benefit of their two children and four grandchildren. Her aunt was the trustee of all the trusts.
The client retained Keystone because formal trust accountings with proper backup documentation had never been provided for all the years that the aunt had been serving as trustee, although there had been ongoing litigation with the trustee. Further, even though the trusts expressly provided for immediate distributions to the beneficiaries after the grandparents had both died, the trustee had not distributed substantial portions of the trust estates, despite client’s demands for distribution and even though both grandparents had passed away more than five years ago.
During the litigation, the trustee conceded that there were no legal impediments to her making these distributions after March 2018; still, the distributions were not made until after Keystone joined the case and sent the trustee’s counsel a letter in 2022 demanding these distributions. When asked by Keystone’s attorney during her deposition what happened in 2022 that finally led to the overdue distributions, her reply was: “Your letter.”
Ultimately, through a marathon mediation that began mid-morning and lasted until after midnight, the parties agreed to settle their disputes, including by an additional substantial payment to the client in exchange for her releasing her claims against the trustee and the trusts.
Keystone Secures Favorable Settlement for Client After Her Father Leaves Everything to His Mistress
Keystone’s client was the only child of a well-respected professional, and her special needs daughter was his only grandchild. Unfortunately, the decedent had several severe addictions that impacted his personal life.
When he was almost 70, he began an extramarital affair with a woman who was almost 40 years younger than him. Taking advantage of his vulnerabilities, his mistress initially convinced him to give her frequent gifts of money. As time went on, the gifts later ballooned into luxury goods, a condo and lavish international trips.
His wife had long supported him through his issues. But when she discovered the affair, she realized that his addictions had irrevocably taken control of him, and she filed for divorce. But the client and her daughter maintained a loving relationship with him, seeing him when they could and communicating with him regularly by text and phone.
Although he had a trust, IRA and another financial account that were to go to the client and her daughter upon his death, that all began to change after his divorce and the onset of some severe medical issues that left him reliant on his mistress to care for him. He kept gradually changing his estate plan until everything ultimately was going to his mistress, and the client and her daughter were completely disinherited.
After he passed away and the client realized what had happened, she retained Keystone to contest her father’s final estate plan, arguing that the mistress had preyed on her father’s vulnerabilities to wrongfully induce him into give her everything.
When litigation began, the mistress defended herself with the claim that the client had abandoned her father, and that she was the only one who cared for him. After appropriate discovery, the matter proceeded to mediation, where Keystone was able to secure for client a substantial payment from the decedent’s assets.
Read about Keystone’s recap of successes in 2018, 2019, 2020 and 2021.
If you are dealing with a complicated trust or estate matter, Keystone’s probate attorneys are well-equipped to obtain a favorable resolution for your case. Because Keystone attorneys practice exclusively in probate law, they have an acute and nuanced understanding of probate matters, as well as years of experience in the field. Learn how we can help you with your legal issue by scheduling a free consultation.